Does British Airways still value brand-led marketing?

Kerris Bright: outgoing global head of marketing
Kerris Bright: outgoing global head of marketing

BA's marketer 'churn' may be a symptom of deeper malaise, writes Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith.

British Airways is in a tight spot. The slow and steady build-up of negative press surrounding the airline, from allegations of price-fixing to long-running trade union disputes, has continued to clip its wings.

Now Kerris Bright, its head of global marketing, has quit after seven months in the role to join bathrooms brand Ideal Standard as chief marketer, although she is understood to be up for the top job.

Her departure raises the question of whether brand-led marketing will continue to play a significant role in BA's business strategy, or the airline and its battle-hardened chief executive Willie Walsh are instead too deeply embroiled in day-to-day scraps to care.

Bright joined BA last summer following a recruitment process that began in late 2008 - itself part of a marketing personnel soap opera that goes back to the departure of the airline's then-lead marketer, Jill McDonald, in 2006 (see box).

Since then a host of marketers, including Martin George and Katherine Whitton, have all bade farewell to the brand once known as 'The world's favourite airline'.

Last year, Andrew Crawley, then sales and marketing director, tried to promote BA's highest marketing position as 'one of the top marketing jobs in the industry', but Bright's swift exit raises doubts over the desirability of the role.

Complex structure

Crawley had vowed that the airline would 'transform [its] business through innovative and creative marketing campaigns', with Bright devising a brand positioning to return BA to the glory days.

Those campaigns have failed to materialise, with price-led work as the focus and the last brand-led marketing launching in 2009. The fact that Virgin Atlantic has rolled out two critically lauded campaigns in the interim has only added to the impression that BA is falling behind.

A source close to the airline said that Bright had become frustrated with the appointment of Frank Van Der Post in the position of managing director of brands and customer experience. Another insider claimed that she was disillusioned with the 'complicated and layered structure' at BA, under which she reported to Van Der Post.

Bright, who remains at BA until the spring, claims to be 'working on a really exciting brand brief'. 'It's currently in creative development and we're hoping to see some great new brand work in the marketplace later this year,' she said. 'We'll also be activating our sponsorship of London 2012 with a fantastic campaign.'

However, as chief executive Walsh is said to be losing interest in big-brand marketing and keen to focus on below-the-line and loyalty-focused activity, doubts have been raised as to whether any marketer can deliver the knockout ad campaign many observers think BA needs to win over sceptical consumers.

Following the airline's merger with Spanish carrier Iberia, creating holding company International Airline Group, Rosi McMurray, executive director of consulting at branding agency The Brand Union, believes the time has come for BA to grab the situation 'by the scruff of the neck' and explain why its problems lie in the past.

'There is huge confusion around big alliances, like BA and Iberia, where there is no clear brand architecture,' says McMurray. 'It's a remarkably difficult industry, under pressure due to weather, fuel prices and the reduced spending of consumers and businesses. There is now a great opportunity to create brand clarity.'

Paul Charles, chief operating officer at Lewis PR and former director of communication at BA's arch-rival, Virgin Atlantic, is confident that BA will regain ground, but says it must sort out its industrial relations problems before trying to win back travellers.

'It needs to resolve the union issues before shouting about itself as a global airline. It puts people off flying,' argues Charles. 'BA is one of the strongest out there, so it will bounce back, but it will contune fighting the headwinds in 2011.'

Bright's sudden exit does not create the impression of a brand about to push the limits of its marketing opportunities, but that is what it should focus on to win back the public's favour. Otherwise, the turbulence afflicting BA's flight path may never ease.

BA DEPARTURES

Jan 2006: Jill McDonald, global head of marketing at British Airways, left following a restructure of the marketing team.

Jan 2007: McDonald's replacement, head of brand and marketing communications Jayne O'Brien, moved to office services firm Regus.

Jun 2008: Tiffany Hall, head of marketing and distribution at BA, left after 20 years with the carrier.

Oct 2008: Katherine Whitton, BA's head of marketing communications, took voluntary redundancy.

Feb 2009: BA began the search for a global marketing director.

Feb 2010: The airline announced it had hired AkzoNobel chief marketing officer Kerris Bright as head of global marketing. It waited while she worked out her notice period at the paints company.

Feb 2011: Bright announced she will leave BA in the spring to join Ideal Standard.

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